A U.S. Mission Shift In Iraq?

By Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
© National Journal Group Inc.

In his testimony before House and Senate panels this week, Army Gen. David Petraeus urged a deliberative approach to shifting security responsibilities to the nascent Iraqi army, but it is not clear he will have the last word on timing.

Some top military and civilian officials are privately advocating that the Iraqis be given greater control over the primary U.S. mission in Iraq — securing the population from insurgent and sectarian attacks — on a faster timetable than Petraeus appears ready to embrace.

This twist in the debate comes as the top commander for the Middle East, Adm. William Fallon, and some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have pushed for the Iraqis to step up their own political and military efforts to reduce violence and achieve reconciliation, according to informed sources.

The justification for a quicker mission handoff is that such a transition is necessary to sustain any security improvements realized by the surge of roughly 30,000 U.S. troops this spring once the surged units are reduced this year and next. At a minimum, advocates hope a gradual mission shift might help keep a lid on violence as U.S. troops begin leaving Iraq.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group similarly recommended late last year that as U.S. force levels come down, the U.S. military should increasingly relinquish the lead for military operations and refocus its efforts on training and supporting the Iraqi forces.

Appearing on Monday before two House committees, Petraeus indicated a shift in mission is expected over time but warned against a “premature” transition. “We have learned before that there is a real danger in handing over tasks to the Iraqi security forces before their capability and local conditions warrant,” the general said.

“No change of mission [is] planned” as the impending reductions occur, one officer close to Petraeus said in an e-mailed response to questions this week. The officer — who offered remarks on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the issue publicly — said the transition timing is unknown. The process is “not [on] a timeline but [is] conditions-based,” this source said.

Petraeus appears to be standing firm on this point. He suggested in Sept. 11 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he believes the current pace for mission shift is about right, despite oft-repeated lawmaker complaints about sluggish performance in training the Iraqis.

“We have, indeed, already been shifting responsibilities to the Iraqis in a number of different places around Iraq,” the general said. “We’re trying to push the conditions as fast as we can without, again, rushing to failure.”

In fact, some commanders who support the Petraeus viewpoint are asking whether mission transition might soon run the risk of becoming an end in itself, displacing a proper focus on carrying out a sound counterinsurgency campaign.

But others suggest political realities might well catch up with Petraeus, who appears eager to minimize security risks by retaining as much U.S. military control in Iraq as possible, for as long as he can. Critics on Capitol Hill have complained that the United States cannot continue to await Iraqi security force readiness that has seemed for years to remain elusive.

President Bush has often stated that he will follow his commander’s recommendations on force levels for Iraq. But the White House is facing a mix of commander assessments on the mission transition question, and alternative viewpoints to Petraeus’ could carry considerable weight given the mounting pressure to disengage from Iraq, according to insiders.

As commander in chief, Bush could direct Petraeus to alter U.S. force missions earlier if he believes conditions warrant, officials tell National Journal.

Such a command could come in the next few months, prior to next spring’s force reductions, according to officials. But mission handovers might be directed even sooner in selected areas of Iraq, these sources said.

The changes — though relatively subtle and gradual — should put the United States on a more expeditious course for force withdrawals, defense experts say.

Petraeus laid out a blueprint for beginning the withdrawal of surged forces as early as this month and redeploying a total of five brigades by next July. The Army general also expects to recommend by March 2008 whether the withdrawal of an additional three brigades might be subsequently carried out.

Bush is due to announce his latest decisions about Iraq in a prime-time television address on Thursday.

At the Sept. 10 hearing, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asked Petraeus to address media reports that he had differed with Fallon over the pace of force withdrawals. In response, the general disavowed any split on that issue, saying the admiral supported his recommendations for reductions in full.

But Petraeus also acknowledged obliquely that the mission transition question has been under debate.

“The discussions that we had, had more to do with the timing of mission shifts, rather than anything else,” he said.

Petraeus presented a slide to Congress this week showing he has begun drafting his recommended approach for altering missions. James Miller of the Center for a New American Security says the general intends to work with Washington policymakers to build on that initial thinking.

“General Petraeus and his team understand that ‘un-surge’ is not a strategy and that they need to develop a real transition plan,” Miller said.

In a report issued in June, Miller and another CNAS analyst, Shawn Brimley, described how such a transition might be carried out. “U.S. forces would gradually disengage from leading door-to-door patrols to protect Iraqi civilians in Baghdad or other cities,” they wrote. “Instead, U.S. military and civilian advisers would increasingly participate in patrols and other legitimate operations conducted by the Iraqi army, and by local and provincial police. This change would increase U.S. leverage with Iraqi national, provincial and tribal actors and enhance the ability to use political and economic negotiations to secure American interests.”

[Reprinted by permission of National Journal Group. This article may not be reproduced or redistributed, in part or in whole, without express permission of the publisher. Copyright 2007, National Journal Group. For more information and exclusive news, go to http://www.globalsecuritynewswire.org or http://www.nationaljournal.com.]

2 Responses to “A U.S. Mission Shift In Iraq?

  • 1
    December 3rd, 2007 00:34

    Before security responsibilities can be shifted to the Iraqi army there first has to actually be an Iraqi army. The current so-called Iraqi national army is a Shia/Kurdish militia at best and an outright joke at worst.

  • 2
    December 7th, 2007 02:18

    “there first has to actually be an Iraqi army.”

    Agreed, and it’s really quite pathetic, and one is reminded instantly
    of the S. Vietnamese army, it’s ineptness, the corrpution.

    And so the US “hobby wars” “for fun & profit” continue, on cue,
    every generation, as if by economic nessesity, premised on any
    excuse, designed to prolong, protract and stalemate.

    Maximillian Cunningham

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